April is the cruelest month, engenders lilacs from the dead earth, mixes memory and desire, shakes opaque roots with spring rain. But it’s also, if I look at the clock, Mario Time.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” with its primary-colored vistas, is here to brighten up our dull springs, TS Eliot be damned. For there to be a surge of enthusiasm for a Mario Bros. movie is something that was once unthinkable. The last time Mario hit the big screen was in the little-remembered 1993 live-action film with Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi, and Dennis Hopper(!) as Bowser. Hoskins called the experience a “af——— nightmare.”
But a lot has changed in the three decades since “Super Mario Bros,” the first video game adaptation. A genre once widely derided is now a cash cow. “The Last of Us” is a huge hit on HBO. Pokémon and “Uncharted” are blockbusters. With Sonic the Hedgehog already two movies out, Mario is trying to catch up.
And “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which opens in theaters on Wednesday, is a spirited and spirited attempt to run at the front of the pack. A collaboration between legendary video game designer and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Illumination founder Chris Meledandri (both producers), it’s a much more sincere effort to capture the fun and spirit of Nintendo’s gaming.
And visually, it’s a dream. Directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic and their animators have rendered the Mario universe in cartoonish splendor, blending the game’s artful simplicity with a more robust and equally charming daytime palate. If part of the appeal of playing “Super Mario Bros. and its many spin-offs has always been immersing yourself in such a sunny imaginary world, along with composer Koji Kondo’s game compositions, the film has successfully captured that fungus-stomping joy. It makes you… want to play Mario.
This is because, as enjoyable as watching “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is, it’s not nearly as fun as playing it. It’s him, Mario, but it’s not a masterpiece. The story is only slightly above the interstitial plot snippets you usually get between games. With the exception of Jack Black’s bombastically smitten Bowser (he’s part Phantom of the Opera, part Meatloaf-esque balladeer), there’s nothing here that deepens these characters beyond their usual 2-D adventures. Mario may be a modern Mickey Mouse, but his kingdom is on the console.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” It begins much like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”: in a Brooklyn pizzeria. There, Mario (Chris Pratt, passable despite protests) and Luigi (Charlie Day) struggle to get their plumbing business off the ground. There are a few moments of stereotypical Italian life (pasta and a big family dinner) before the brothers’ attempt to fix a water main break leads them through a portal into the game’s fantasy realm. (In future sequels set in Brooklyn, Mario will presumably fight off waves of walkers and hipsters.)
On the other hand, Bowser dominates an army of Koopa Troops in scenes that may seem like the most surreal imitation of “Triumph of the Will” yet. But while it’s possible to shrink or enlarge this other side of the green pipe, there’s never a mention of the potential for lives to be lost as Mario plows his way through mushroom patches and question mark boxes. His situation is as clear as it is in the game: he has been separated from Luigi and must help save Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) from being forced to marry Bowser.
Game logic often dictates Mario’s moves. The shells of the turtle-like Koopas can be slid around as ammunition. And choosing a Mario Kart vehicle is just as difficult a decision. Sometimes the overlap is less consistent. An invincibility star is the most sought after item in this adventure, greatly exaggerating its typical usefulness. Those things last like 10 seconds.
None of this is likely to be enough to make someone exclaim “Oh yeah!” while jumping up and down and taking off their caps. But it’s an hour and a half of superlative marketing that will whet your appetite for more Mario at home on the couch. If anything, the, as Mario would say, “okay dokey” “Super Mario Bros. Movie” only reinforces the distance between two completely different mediums. It may be game for video game adaptations, but Mario’s main event is still back on Nintendo.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for action and mild violence. Duration: 92 minutes. two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP